Leah Beeferman hails from Cambridge, MA and travels from her Brooklyn home to be this month’s Artist in Residence. With an undergraduate degree from Brown and an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth, Beeferman is armed with a great number of ideas and mediums for her abstract art. She experiments with a wide array of art forms, but prefers laser cutters, digital work, and sound pieces to showcase her interests in science and systems. Sienna Bates sat down with Leah Beeferman to talk about abstract physics, digital printing, a residency in Svalbard, and her work as “an expanded idea of drawing.”
What interests you about art? How did you get involved in it?
I’ve been making art for my whole life. As a kid, I was really into cartoons and sports, so I drew a lot of baseball players and Olympic athletes. But, in terms of my real work that I started doing since I was in college, I got interested in it after I took a class my freshman year on the history of modern architecture. That was a really amazing class because I started thinking about architecture in a way I never really had before. It sort of became a symbol for a place where all different parts of society would interact with each other. There is very much an art side to the design of a building. There’s also a lot of civic regulation. Basically, architecture became a place where different parts of the world come together. At the same time, I was also taking a fiction writing class. It was funny because I had to write stories and develop characters and I found myself really not interested with the characters or plot at all. When I was writing, I realized the only reason my characters existed was so that, in my mind, the spaces they were in could exist, so it kind of became about the architecture, in a way.
A few years earlier, I read Virginia Woolf for the first time and she has a pretty amazing way of telling stories where nothing happens, or where things happen very subtly. Her work is rich with tiny details of what is happening. That was really influential to me. I learned that I don’t want to be a writer and tell stories; I want to be a visual artist. There’s been a really long trajectory from then to where I am now, but I still think about those things. I’m really interested in creating things about space.
When I was in grad school, I got really interested in science, even though architecture and science are kind of the same thing for me. There’s kind of an ongoing relationship between ideas that I’ve read about and the fact that I make abstract art. It’s kind of a back and forth negotiation of trying to figure out how my sources come into play.
What draws you to the mediums you use?
I think one main thing that happened was that when I was in grad school, I was making a lot of ink and graphite drawings on paper. And I’ve always been interested in technology. To make money, I worked on websites for people and I’ve been involved with a lot of graphic design things. So, computers have always been part of my life, and I was a computer nerd.
When I was in grad school, I would have studio visits with my teachers and I would talk about all these things that went into my drawings and they would be like, “well, I very much like what you’re talking about, and I like what you’re drawing, but I don’t see them talking to each other.” That was because drawings are such a material thing that they very much reference themselves, as in you won’t look at an abstract drawing and start thinking about all these scientific things that I wanted to describe. I didn’t want to lose the inventive quality or the process of discovery that drawing had, but I also knew that I needed to expand it in some way. My art started becoming more than just drawings.
Then I started thinking about the other ways I know how to work. I don’t paint or sculpt, but I have an interest in digital forms. One of my professors was a really great sound artist, so I got really interested in the ability for sound to create a feeling of place. In part, it feels like the natural exploration of my interests because I do think about science so much, so making art that is technological makes a lot of sense. But I’m really interested in not so much more the human side of science — because what I’m interested in is very abstract physics to do with the universe and fundamental particles and things that don’t have to do with the universe, really — but the idea of interpreting those things in a way that people can understand it. People tend to see those things are esoteric, so I try to make them connect on an emotional level. This idea of combining drawing with human interests and technical processes is a good way to embody all the interests I have.
What do you try to accomplish through your art?
There are a few main goals I have in mind. The relationship between a system and a person is important to me. I want my work to suggest that there is a system in place, but it to also feel that that system has been informed in a kind of intuitive way, and it’s not about an objective understanding of a system; it’s about a playful understanding of it. Since my work is very abstract, I feel like my work to be seen as a kind of conceptual abstraction, as opposed to a formal abstraction, even though they’re both very important to me. I’m not overly-concerned with people understanding the specific subject interests that I have, but I want the work to feel like that there is something oddly particular that is driving it, rather than it just being a painting about form, or abstraction explicitly.
What do you mean by systems?
It’s a very broad definition, and it grows out of a really broad definition I had for architecture. I started thinking about systems in buildings, as in the invisible systems of electricity, plumbing, and all these other things we don’t actually seek. Basically, transitioning into science, I started thinking about these physical laws of the universe as abstract architecture that governs the ways we live in the world, like gravity, orbits, particles relationships, and all that other kind of stuff. I’m not an expert in any of it because I sort of teach myself about it as I go. There are a million different systems that sort of make the world the way that it is. I got interested in physics for that reason. But then, a system can also mean a piece of software on the computer that I’m interacting with because it works in a certain way — and I can use it in a particular way — but I’m still dealing with its limitations. Or, a system can be a sort of process that I create for myself, or limitations I make for myself when I work. Really simply put, it’s a structure of some sort to be explored. And maybe something that’s considered objective.
What were your main challenges as AIR?
I feel like my main challenge is that I have a lot of things going on this spring, so I’m trying to juggle all of those and be present here. That’s the hardest part for me, and it has nothing to do with AS220 at all. There haven’t really been any other challenges beyond that, except that I don’t have my own car. It’s been pretty good so far.
What was your goal for the end of the project?
I feel like I’m just getting started because I came here primarily to make these laser-etch pieces, but the laser cutter broke and it just got fixed. My goal is to explore this process as much as I can for the next week and to make as much work as I can because it’s an amazing resource to have access to. But I also want to get to spend more time with the people around here and get a better sense of what’s going on in Providence. I probably should have given myself more than a month, and more than the shortest month of the year.
What are some of your notable past projects?
I was in a group show in Copenhagen, Denmark, and it was organized by an artist I’m friends with. In addition to the gallery show that I had a video piece in, they were doing a screening of someone else’s performance work and they are also going to screen one of my sound pieces. For the last couple of years, I’ve been making these long, 15 or 16 minute sound pieces. What was so amazing about the screening was that it was held in the Niels Bohr Institute, Niels Bohr being a very famous figure in the history of atomic physics in the 20s and 30s. So in the classroom where he used to teach, we got to play one of my sound pieces for a small audience. That was one of my favorite things because sound art is one of the more difficult things to show in galleries, and to have an event like that in a place that felt meaningful to what my pieces was, that was really notable for me.
I’ve been in a lot of various group shows. In May, I have a two-person show with my old professor, Stephen Vitiello, so I’m very excited about that. He’s really prominent, so it’s a big deal for me.
Another notable thing I did was a residency in the artic. It’s interesting because that trip was a two-week residency in Svalbard, which is north of Norway. There were about 20 artists, writers, and musicians, and we were all on a boat together for 12 days as we sailed around this archipelago. We got to get on and off the boat almost every day. It was probably the most amazing thing I’ve done, for sure. That happened at an interesting time because I had been doing a lot of work that was directly related to science, so I feel like I needed a change. It was this complication with the natural world that I found interesting because I had been so much thinking about all this abstract stuff about the universe and space. I finally thought, “this is the real world. This is fear.” And that had a huge impact on what I’m doing now. All to say that, I’m not really a nature person, but I really like to travel. It’s funny because that residency spurred a bunch of work that used photographs I took in these places as abstract elements in digital prints. And also, I made sound recordings there that I still use now. It’s almost as if to keep making this body of work, I need to go places that aren’t New York and be able to have materials I can’t see in the city. I have a bug for the North, for sure.
Do you prefer to collaborate or work on your own?
I kind of like both. When I’m actually working on my visual work or my sound work itself, I really like to be alone. I could never imagine having an assistant for that type of thing because I don’t think I could share my thinking process with anyone.
But when it comes to coming up with how the artwork gets displayed in the show, I really like being conversation with various people about that because I feel like presentation of the work adds as much to the meaning of the work as the work itself. It’s important to me to have conversations about what the appropriate mode of presentation would be to support what I’m thinking about. For that part, I really value input.
How have you grown as an artist over the years?
It’s been a long haul, but mainly, I’ve been trying to learn this very difficult thing, which is that just because you think that what you’re thinking about is embodied in what you’ve made, it’s not necessarily so. And the thing that you’ve made, completely on its own, suggests all of these things that are separate from you and what you’re thinking. And so, it’s been a long process coming up with an idea, making a thing, and accepting that the thing suggests certain other things, and figuring out how that relates to my original idea. And then try the same thing for the next thing.
For example, when you say, “my piece is about this, this, this, and this,” and it’s not, you’ve kind of failed at something, even if the piece itself is interesting. So that’s been long and difficult, but the simple way to put it is to say I’ve been embracing making abstract art. How much can it say about something beside abstraction? That’s sort of why all these other tools come into play to suggest things are beyond the abstraction. I’ve been loosening my reliance of subject matter as inspiration for my work, and trying to generalize a little bit to make my goals a little more honest, in terms of what my work actually is. That’s definitely been my biggest challenge.
What are some of your other interests?
I really like music. I used to play the piano and guitar, but I don’t really have time anymore. I used to be in a band in high school and college. I used to write songs. I like to read a lot, when I have time. I think reading is really good for me because it gives me a lot of ideas. A lot of the reading I do is nonfiction. It has a lot to do with science. But I also read about art and I really value reading fiction though I don’t do it as often as I wish I did. Reading really fuels my imagination.
I also like to run. And cook. It’s pretty boring. (Laughs.)
What are your future life/art plans?
I have a show in Oregon in June, so I’m going out there for it. I’ve never really spent that much time there before. That may be a good place to do some digital research. I really want to go to Iceland. That’s one of my goals.
But I really want to keep exploring these ideas. I feel like I’m finally catching up with myself in terms of what I’m thinking about and what I’m making, so I just want to keep doing it. I really like to work.